The tearaway teen who gave defenders 'twisted blood' has become Old Trafford's elder statesman but he's still some player
It began on a lifeless pitch one spring afternoon back in the days when Liverpool were still on their perch, the "keep off the grass" signs were in one language, not the six there are now, and the entire Manchester United team, including substitutes, was made up of players from Britain and Ireland. It was the "Madchester" era, even if Do The Bartman was No1, and, if anyone wants evidence of what a different place Old Trafford was back then, just look at the attendance, 45,656, for a game that left Alex Ferguson's team eight without a win, level on points with Wimbledon, almost a quarter of a century since their last championship.
By his own admission there was not a great deal to get worked up about in Ryan Giggs's first senior appearance back in March 1991, coinciding with a United performance the Observer described the following day as "depleted, disjointed, shapeless". They lost 2-0 against 12th-placed Everton, falling 17 points behind Arsenal at the top of Division One. "Nor was it an auspicious entry from Giggs," the newspaper continues. "He was pushed off the bench when [Denis] Irwin left and, unsurprisingly, failed to find his feet until well into the second half."
Giggs, in fairness, has never tried to butter up the occasion too much himself. His abiding memory after replacing the injured Irwin, 35 minutes in, is Dave Watson scything through him with a challenge that split open his knee and felt, to the 17-year-old recipient, like a coded welcome to the big time. That apart, Giggs remembers Ferguson shouting at everyone in the dressing room. "The gaffer said we were second to the ball and lacked imagination. And he did so pretty forcibly. I can only say he was spot on. We were terrible. It should have been a celebration but it felt more like a wake."
The 22nd anniversary is on Saturday when, courtesy of one of the nice little twists that have accompanied his career (not least overtaking Sir Bobby Charlton's appearance record on the night United won the Champions League in Moscow), Giggs should mark the occasion by clocking up his 1,000th game. Sixty-four were for Wales, four with the Great Britain Olympics team and the other 932 for the club that know enough about Giggs by now to realise he will not want any fussy pre-match presentations before the home game against Norwich City. A polite smile, maybe a wave to the crowd and that will probably be enough when his real focus is the three points on offer. Very soon, one suspects, the swagmen on Sir Matt Busby Way will have to update their "Giggsy 12 Gerrard 0" T-shirts paying homage to his unprecedented collection of title wins.
Eventually, the press release from Old Trafford will carry tributes rather than news but, for now, the announcement that he has extended his contract has become an annual fixture in the football calendar around this stage of the season (10 February last year) and there is no surprise that he is carrying on. As Gary Neville said earlier in the week: "He's been influencing matches since he was 17 and he's still contributing now. I'd be absolutely stunned if he didn't play for another season."
The next deal will take Giggs beyond 40 and, to put it into context, if George Best had had the same kind of longevity he would have played for Ron Atkinson in the 1985 FA Cup final and, best of all, still been at the club when Ferguson took over the following year. Phil Jones was nine when Giggs had his testimonial match against Celtic in 2001 and not even born when he made his debut. David de Gea, Danny Welbeck and Rafael da Silva were all in nappies, aged between three to eight months. Giggs's hair, once raven, now has flecks of grey above the ears and is thinning on the crown. For United there have been 147 different team-mates; for Wales 84. Just don't even try to tot up the number of opponents he has left behind him.
"We played them two days before Christmas in 2000," the former Ipswich Town striker James Scowcroft remembers. "We were fifth in the league but it was the only time in my professional career I've played a match that has felt like schools football because one side was so much better than the other. They beat us 2-0, God knows how it wasn't more, and Giggs was absolutely devastating.
"He was playing up front with [Ole Gunnar] Solskjaer and every time the ball came into Giggs's feet he'd flick it between his legs then run round the other side of the defender with that blistering pace. I can remember at half-time our assistant manager, Dale Roberts, going mad at the centre-halves: 'Any fucking chance you can get tighter on Giggs?' and Mark Venus shouting back: 'You try getting fucking near him.' We were in shock."
"Twisted blood," Ferguson put it in the quote that now adorns the back cover of Giggs's autobiography. Gary Pallister was the first to use that line, going back to their days together on the training pitches of The Cliff. Viv Anderson will vouch for it, too, after the first time Giggs, at 14 and known then as Ryan Wilson, was pushed into a senior practice match. Ferguson loves this story: "Viv was shouting: 'You can't play him, he's far too small.' Ryan gets the ball and boom-boom-boom he's round three of them. Viv can hardly breathe, he's chasing after him and he's going: 'Who the hell is that?'" Apocryphal or not, there is a great story about George Graham apparently inquiring of Ferguson some time in the mid-1990s: "Whatever happened to that Ryan Wilson you used to rave about?"
Neville believes his former team-mate will never be emulated – "there won't be another player like him ever again" – and for a long time Ferguson would happily tell anyone who cared to listen that Giggs should get a knighthood, emboldened enough to say it should happen while he was still playing and "how I would love to adorn my team-sheet with the words 'Sir Ryan Giggs'."
Sadly for him, what has happened since means the idea should probably be shelved and, though it would be nice to gloss over it, there is no point pretending the tabloid scrutiny on Giggs's private life has not caused substantial damage to his public reputation. At one point masked men attacked the photographers' cars outside Giggs's house. Ned Kelly, who ran United's security for over a decade, offers his own slant on Giggs in his 2003 book, Manchester United – The Untold Story. Giggs, he says, "is under the (unsolicited) protection of the 'Salford mob' and affiliated gangs in Manchester. He is quite simply untouchable and viewed as the original local-boy-done-good."
Neville remembers that boy at 14 as "ridiculously special, an incredible player, off another planet" to the point "you were almost embarrassed to turn up at the training ground because you'd think: 'Are they all like him?'" Now he looks at him with a mix of awe and near disbelief. "To think, he came into the team as a flying left-winger and he's now playing as a holding midfielder. He's still got that little bit of pace. But think about what he's doing now, that adaptation in him ... he's now a passer."
As for Ferguson, the Giggs we see now, oozing sophistication and football intelligence, ranks as "the most precious, skill-based player I've ever had". There are three footballers who can make Ferguson's eyes sparkle just by mentioning their names. One is Cristiano Ronaldo, another Eric Cantona. The third is the serial champion who, quietly and diligently behind the scenes, has combined being the doyen of United's dressing room with being the first footballer to reach the mandatory coaching qualification for Premier League and Champions League managers, the elite-standard Uefa Pro Licence level, while still playing.
It has taken Giggs six years in total. Even getting his 'A' and 'B' badges is an example of dedication given the number of hours it takes, never mind for someone already in the business of trying to win football matches. Not too many people recognise Giggs as a realistic contender to manage United whenever Ferguson retires. It should not be discounted.